In 1917, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, which announced support for establishing “a home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. They did not consult any Palestinians about this, but instead made the declaration on the basis that Palestine would become a British Mandate after the Ottoman Empire was dissolved.
In 1948, the British Mandate ended, and the State of Israel was born. During the decades before and since, much of the Middle East has resisted the establishment of the State of Israel in Palestine.
As the State resorted to increasingly violent and extreme measures to crush Palestinian resistance and repeated international efforts to find a peaceful resolution failed, more and more nations began to condemn Israel and take up the cry to free Palestine.
America has not been one of those countries. To date, the United States has given $146 billion in aid to Israel, largely in the form of military assistance. This latest outbreak of violence, in which Israeli missiles have killed hundreds of Palestinians, has shed light on a conflict that has been brewing for over 100 years. That 100+ years of history is fraught with conflicting perspectives and ideologies, thousands of deaths, and unspeakable tragedy.
If recent events have left you feeling woefully uninformed about what’s going on in the region, here are 10 books—all but one written by Israeli or Palestinian authors—that offer historical and contemporary stories of what’s happening. The list includes nonfiction historical accounts of events, deeply personal memoirs of exile and war, and fictional narratives of life in the midst of a decades-long conflict.
The Historical, Political, and Social Context
These books offer readers a way to start understanding the historical circumstance that led to this awful situation.
Arabs and Israelis: Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East
Arabs and Israelis: Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East is a historical and political overview of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict written by a team of both Palestinian and Israeli scholars. It begins with a historical overview to map out the basic facts and a timeline of key events. Then, it moves on to explore the different perspectives of key players in those events and provide important context for understanding what is happening. Grounded in rigorous research and thoughtful analysis, this book is as balanced as a nonfiction book can be about such a persistent and contentious problem.
A Land Without Borders
In A Land Without Borders, Jerusalem-born Nir Baram takes readers on a tour of the West Bank and East Jerusalem to provide a range of first-hand accounts about Palestinian and Israeli life in hostile terrain. The account is based on Baram’s six months spent traveling the region, interviewing ex-prisoners, children, Jewish settlers, and others who have lived through battles, fought for peace, and anxiously navigate daily life while the threat of war looms. For a factual record of daily life on the border, this is a great read.
This unique work is part serious reportage and part comic book. Joe Sacco, a seasoned journalist who’s reported from Palestine, Bosnia, and other sites of conflict for decades, wrote and illustrated this innovative example of comics journalism, a form he pioneered. Palestine is a nonfiction account of Sacco’s two months spent in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in late 1991 and early 1992.
For an on-the-ground and visual account of life in Palestine, this is one of the most interesting and most accessible options. While it’s not as comprehensive or in-depth a history or analysis as the other two books, Sacco switches from present-day events to “flashbacks” that provide historical context, so readers come away with a better understanding of the context and reality.
Memoirs of Life In Israel and Palestine
These are true accounts of people who have experienced the horrors and atrocities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is part national history and part memoir by Ari Shavit, one of Israel’s most influential reporters. The author wrote this troubled history of the country using interviews, letters, historical documents, and his own private diaries. Readers will gain insight into what Israel represents for Jewish people (and why it can be such a point of contention) while also addressing the problematic reality and contradictions of the nation’s violent history.
Palestinian Walks: Forays Into a Vanishing Landscape
What permeates this memoir of life on the West Bank is an abiding love of the landscape and its history. Raja Shehadeh takes readers on six hikes through olive tree-lined hillsides, hyacinth-carpeted valleys, thousand-year-old monasteries, and other magical places in Palestinian Walks. Each of the six hikes is based on Shehadeh’s own meticulously kept diaries.
The hikes span the decades from 1978 to 2006 to trace the evolution of this landscape from a bucolic escape filled with hyacinths and irises to a contentious battleground between its Palestinian residents and incoming Israeli settlers. This memoir provides the much-needed perspective of the land as a home and refuge, rather than just the site of war and tragedy, to remind those of us on the outside what it is the people are fighting for.
I Saw Ramallah
Exiled for 30 years after the Six Day War of 1967, Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti finally returned to his family’s home. I Saw Ramallah details that emotional journey through a hometown he hadn’t seen since he was a child—and which had undergone profound changes over the course of 30 years of occupation. Barghouti’s memoir is written with the evocative and lyrical language of a poet as he explores what it means to be deprived of one’s homeland.
Haunting and Poignant Fiction About Life In Israel and Palestine
These books are fictional accounts that give readers a very real sense of what it’s like to be in the heart of the conflict.
To the End of the Land
In To the End of the Land, Israeli author David Grossman tells the story of a mother waiting for her son to return from the frontlines. Just as he’s due to be sent back, however, he’s sent on another major offensive. Sensing impending bad news, the mother decides to set out on a hike through Galilee with a former friend and lover. Over the course of the next few days, readers gain insight into the ways that war haunts daily life and families.
Let It Be Morning
Sayed Kashua, an Arab-Israeli author, reveals the complexity and challenges of being an Israeli of Arab descent in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Let It Be Morning, readers follow the journey of a young Arab journalist as he returns to his hometown in the borderlands of Israel. Just as he’s becoming disenchanted with the provincial life of his hometown, the village is suddenly placed under siege when Israeli tanks surround it. Cut off from all contact with the outside world, life in the village grows dire and the villagers gradually fall into a state of paranoia and chaos. It’s a painful and gripping story of the conflicting feeling of being both trapped and alienated.
Set on the eve of and during the Six-Day War of 1967, Salt Houses traces the story of one Palestinian family across three generations—from the grandmother who witnessed the war through to her grandchildren who grew up far from their Palestinian home. Taken together, this novel explores the range of different experiences of and relationships to Palestine, from living in a war zone to growing up with a sense of disconnect and longing. Hala Alyan’s poetic and breathtaking prose maintains a powerful grip on readers from the beginning to the end of this heartbreaking story.
The Book of Gaza: A City in Short Fiction
Atef Abu Seif edited The Book of Gaza, a collection of short stories by some of Palestine’s greatest authors. The 10 stories give readers a glimpse into what everyday life is like for men, women, and children in Gaza, sometimes called “the world’s largest prison.” The stories radiate a sense of urgency, anxiety, resilience, and hope spanning early works from the ‘70s and ‘80s as well as modern works by some of Gaza’s newest writers.